I finally got around to reading John Brunner’s prescient The Shockwave Rider (1975), a sci-fi novel many credit for breaking ground on what would later become the cyberpunk genre. Inspired by Alvin Toffler’s highly influential book Future Shock, Brunner grapples with the consequences of an Internet-like connected society on the nature of identity, power, and most importantly, information itself. (It even contains an oblique reference to the Magnavox Odyssey videogame system of the early 1970s!)
Much like Asimov’s laws of robotics, Brunner attempts to harness technology’s humanistic potential with positivistic propositions; his novel ends with two declarations for a net-connected, utopian-like information age:
“#1: That this is a rich planet. Therefore poverty and hunger are unworthy of it, and since we can abolish them, we must.
#2: That we are a civilized species. Therefore none shall henceforth gain illicit advantage by reason of the fact that we together know more than one of us can know.”
Share information, save the world: This is a very 1960s conclusion to a book that has otherwise only grown more persuasively contemporary for its pessimistic view of information control. If the computers we built to control information, in response to the industrial revolution, have perversely made society post-industrial, they have also made us personally post-control. The recent Pew survey on digital privacy suggests that we have given up on controlling personal information as a society; we trade data about ourselves for the chance to share likes on Facebook. This is not an entirely trivial trade—either in what we gain or lose—but it has led to the consolidation of incredible data about ourselves in the hands of a few.